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The Titles of Jesus: Jesus the Son of God and Jesus as God – Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

July 23, 2012

Heinrich Hofmann’s Christ In The Temple

The major titles the New Testament applies to Jesus are as follows: Prophet, Suffering Servant, High Priest, Messiah, Son of Man, Lord, Savior, Word, Son of God, and God. Far from being a mere litany of honorifics, these titles actually refer to different aspects of his work and identity. The Swiss New Testament scholar Oscar Cullmann, from whom Oakes has drawn this list, has grouped the various titles into four rubrics: (1) the earthly work of Jesus, (2) the future work of Jesus, (3) His present work, and finally to (4) His pre-existence. In this sixth selection we will look at the title Jesus the Son of God and Jesus as God, the second and third of the titles dealing with the pre-existence of our Lord

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Jesus the Son of God
“Son of God” is like “Son of Man” in this sense: it has both a generic meaning that could, at least theoretically, apply to any male human being (or by metonymy, to human beings of both sexes), especially if he is of a pious disposition; and it has a specific meaning with a specific theological connotation, especially when applied to Jesus. But in that regard, the role of these two terms is somewhat reversed. In patristic times, as we shall see, “Son of God” was the term that was taken to apply to Jesus’ divine status, while “Son of Man” was seen to refer to his humanity. However, as we saw in an earlier post, “Son of Man,” at least in some contexts, referred to a heavenly, eschatological figure who would come down on the clouds to inaugurate a new age.

Conversely, in Hebrew usage “Son of God,’ again in some contexts, could be an honorific title given to any pious Israelite, or even to the whole nation of Israel itself. “Son of God” is also unusual in contrast to “Son of Man” in that Jesus rarely uses the former term to describe himself, whereas the latter is constantly on his lips as self-description.

Similarly, in a pagan setting “son of (the) god” [Greek syntax requires the article "the" in front of the word "god" irrespective of whether the reference is to a pagan god or the God of monotheism. Also, small letters were not invented for Greek until about the eighth century of the Christian era, so no orthographic distinction could have been drawn in the ancient world between the monotheistic "God" and a polytheistic "god."] did not necessarily imply that a human being so called had some kind of Olympian genealogy: the usual term in Greek for such a person (like Achilles) would be theios aner (divine man) rather than uios tou theou (son of the god). In any case, such ambiguity would not obtain in Israel, where “son of God” would clearly be understood as an honorific title by virtue of the fact that God was confessed as Israel’s Father. Given the fact that the God of Israel is without pedigree, the sonship that binds Israel to God was clearly one not of biological lineage in the pagan manner but of obedience.

This linkage of the concepts of sonship and obedience explains why the Old Testament can apply the term “son of God” to the people of Israel as a whole, to Israel’s kings, and to persons specially commissioned by God, including angels. For example, Moses is commanded by God to say to Pharaoh, “Israel is my first-born son” (Exodus 4:22), and God speaks through Hosea saying “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea. 11:1); and even when Israel strays, the people are called “faithless sons” (Jeremiah 3:22), implying that even in disobedience God is still calling the people to repentance, lest the bond between God and Israel be irrevocably broken. Kings, too, are called “sons” by God: “I will be his father, and he shall be my son” (2 Samuel 7:14), says God of David; and in a royal coronation psalm much quoted by the early church we read: “You are my son, today I have begotten you” (Psalms 2:7). Angels too are called “sons of God” (Job 1:6; Psalms 29:1; Daniel 3:25, 28).

This wide range of usage in the Old Testament can create problems in the interpretation of Jesus as Son of God, because clearly the New Testament wants to link the idea of obedience and sonship in Jesus but also wants to insist that he is Son of God in a manner unique to him and unprecedented in Israel. A further complication comes from the fact that Jesus is called “Son of God” by both God (at Jesus’ baptism) and by Satan (during his temptations), making it apparently the appellation of choice for the “supernatural” actors in Jesus’ life.

When Jesus emerges from the River Jordan after being baptized by John, a voice resounds from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved” (Matthew 3:17) or “You are my Son, my Beloved” (Mark 1:11; Luke 3:22). [FN: The voice from heaven repeats (more or less) these same words at the Transfiguration (including in Mark, who does not narrate in any detail the temptations): Matthew 17:5; Mark 97; Luke 9:35 (where the voice from heaven says "my Chosen One" instead of "my Beloved").]

Jesus is driven out by the Spirit into the desert to pray and fast for forty days and forty nights, at the end of which the devil comes to him with temptations that begin, “If you are the Son of God …” (Matthew 4:3, 6; Luke 4:3, 9). Both scenes stress the obedience of the Son, with the baptism suggesting a unique sonship and the temptations stressing Jesus’ refusal to see his sonship purely in terms of miraculous power but solely in terms of his mission.

FN: “The most important passages of the Synoptic Gospels in which Jesus appears as the Son of God show him precisely not as a miracle worker and savior like many others, but as one radically and uniquely distinguished from all other men. He knows that he is sent to all other men to fulfill his task in complete unity with the Father. This distinction, this isolation, means to Jesus not primarily miraculous power, but the absolute obedience of a son in the execution of a divine commission”
Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament

Moreover, when Peter confesses at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), Jesus explicitly says to him that “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but only my Father in heaven” (16:17), once again showing how Jesus’ unique sonship is a reality accessible only from a supernatural, not natural, perspective, a point Jesus stresses even more forcefully when he says, “All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27; with slight variations in wording in Luke 10:22).

The linkage between sonship and mission is consistently held throughout the New Testament, but there are variations of emphasis. One point to note as we look at these variations: as we already saw, in the Synoptic Gospels “Son of Man” is the favored self-designation of Jesus whereas “Lord” and “Christ” are the favored titles for Jesus by the confessing, post-Easter church. “Son of God,” however, is both a term that Jesus uses to refer to himself and is a confessional term of the church.

In fact Mark defines the entire purpose of his Gospel as one that wants to bring his readers to a faith in Jesus as Son of God: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God” (Mark in), and culminates his narration of the death of Jesus with the centurion’s confession at the cross: “Truly this was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39). The Johannine literature makes this confessional use of “Son of God” even more explicit: “No one who denies the Son has the Father. He who confesses the Son has the Father also” (1 John 2:23).

Paul too sees the Son-title as explicitly confessional in a passage we have already seen: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God — the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who was a descendant of David according to the flesh and who through the Spirit of holiness was designated with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead” (Romans 1:1-4).

Another point to note: whereas Paul generally prefers “Lord” as his confessional term, John highlights “Son” above all other titles: for him it is the key to Jesus’ identity and mission. This term more than any other expresses Jesus’ unique relation to his Father and his unique mission, a mission to which he is totally obedient: “I do nothing on my own authority; … I seek not my own will but the will of the one who sent me” (John 5:30). Just like the Synoptic evangelists, John stresses that this unique relationship of Jesus to his Father cannot be perceived except by God’s revelation, as Cullmann deftly explains:

While witnesses can and must be produced to support other assertions, there can be no question of human witness for Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.God himself is the only possible competent witness. Only he can validate this claim of oneness with himself. The claim to be the Son of God so bursts all human bonds that only this circular explanation is possible: the Father himself must attest that Jesus is the Son; on the other hand, this divine testimony must be given precisely in the Son.
Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament

Jesus as God
There can be no question that the New Testament is quite reticent about calling Jesus “God” outright, without further ado. Such reticence is understandable, for an explicit and unqualified designation of Jesus as God could sound polytheistic and mythological; or if “God” is meant monotheistically, to whom then is Jesus praying if he is already God simpliciter? On the other hand, a refusal to countenance calling Jesus “God” would lead to its own problems, underplaying and undercutting the unique bond that Jesus has with his Father, denigrating his divine status in favor of an excessive stress on his humanity.

We have already seen that the Fourth Evangelist has dealt with that theological dilemma in his prologue when he used Logos terminology: the Word was both with God and yet also was God (John 1:1). Furthermore, the obvious reticence of the New Testament in calling Jesus “God” can be exaggerated, for, as we have already seen, the title “Lord” was a specifically liturgical confession by which Christians addressed Jesus in worship. Still, passages that directly and without further ado designate Jesus as “God” are relatively rare, but no less significant for New Testament Christology on that account.

Outside of John 1:1 the most important passage would be the confession of doubting Thomas to Jesus on the Sunday after Easter, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), a passage that “frames” the Fourth Gospel in just the way the centurion’s confession “This was truly the Son of God” (Mark 15:39) framed Mark’s Gospel about the Son of God. [The fact that the centurion's confession hearkens back to the opening line of Mark's Gospel just as Thomas's confession hearkens back to the opening line of John's Gospel shows how desperate Arius was in the third century when he claimed that Thomas's confession "My Lord and my God" was really only an expostulation on his part, expressing a surprised prayer, rather in the manner of an American teenager crying out "Ohmigod!"Arius's exegesis is clearly a case of special pleading.]

Paul too speaks of Jesus as “God”: “Put on the mind of Christ Jesus, who, being the very form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped” (Philemon 2:5-6); and he unambiguously asserts: “In him [Christ] the entire fullness of the Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). In the Letter to Titus Paul speaks of waiting “for that blessed hope, the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).[ An almost identical phrase appears in the Petrine corpus too: "From Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours" (2 Peter 1:1).]

Finally we may mention these perhaps ambiguous lines: “Of their race [the Jews] come the patriarchs, and from them comes Christ according to the flesh, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen” (Romans 9:5). [The ambiguity arises from the possibility that the word translated as "who" (referring to Christ) could instead mean "he" (referring to God), which would result in this translation: "Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them comes Christ according to the flesh, who is over all. God be praised!"]

Another potentially ambiguous passage from Paul speaks of “the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2) [The grammar of the Greek allows for the word "Christ" to modify either "mystery" or "God."].

More ambiguous is the line from Revelation: “He [Jesus] has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself” (Revelation 19:12), which may or may not be the sacred name of God. [Finally, mention should be made of two papyrus manuscripts p66 (published in 1956) and p75 (published in 1961). Both manuscripts give a variant reading for John 1:18, which most manuscripts read this way: “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, has made him known” (RSV). But these two papyri reproduce the verse to say: “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (NIV), or “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (NRSV).

The very ambiguity of these latter passages, together with their relative sparseness, points to one of the central problems that will beset the church’s later Christological thought: a too-close identification of Jesus with God will render both his obedience to the Father and his outward mission to the world inexplicable; but an excessive reticence, not to say cowardice, about worshiping Jesus as God will undercut the efficacy of his work of redemption and undermine a belief in his uniqueness that it is the whole point of every book in the New Testament to convey.

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